I’ll be honest: Even before this whole religious life thing happened, I was a bit of a Valentine’s Day Scrooge. It’s not that I don’t see the beauty in or enjoy the cherishing of love and friendship that occurs; I really do. I just can’t stomach the way that commercials tell us from New Years until February 14th that love must be conveyed through a commercialized flurry of red tissue paper, bling bling, and expensive dinner tabs. I know I’m not the only one who has a love/hate relationship with Valentine’s Day. If you’re dating, engaged, or married, it is a moment to celebrate the gift of love shared with your partner. If you’re single, recently broken-up, just lost a loved one, separated, long-distance, divorced, widowed, or, well – celibate, it might be a day that digs up unpleasant feelings.
|Me officially "joining the ranks" - signing the|
Sisters of Charity book of membership after
my Affilation ceremony in June
Almost a year into the process of becoming a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati, I’ve permanently joined the ranks of those who will not be curling up with a loved one and a glass of wine tonight. For anyone unfamiliar with Catholicism, Sisters make vows of poverty, obedience and chastity. Chastity within the religious life means celibacy – at its most basic definition, being unmarried and sexually abstinent.
This vow of celibacy is a tricky thing. Sister Janet told me a story about Sister Annina Morgan, a wise and well-loved Sister of Charity who will turn 97 this spring. I’ve had the privilege of talking with her a few times, and I am struck by how wonderfully real she is. One night years ago, all of the novices were hanging out when Sr. Annina came down to join them. One of the novices asked her, “Annina, when did you figure out this celibacy thing?” She replied, “Well, probably I’ll figure it out about 24 hours after I’m dead!”
It’s reassuring and discouraging at the same time to know that this may never totally make sense. As an Affiliate just barely dipping my toe into the waters of the religious life, especially at a time in life when most of my friends are married or headed that way, it’s difficult. Out of the three vows, celibacy will likely be my biggest struggle.
Here’s the thing. Confession of a Sister-in-training: I LOVE men! Love them. I think they’re beautiful! I also LOVE many things about being in love: the intimate sharing, growing in acceptance and vulnerable knowing, mutual support, laughter. I love cuddling, holding hands, and slow-dancing. I love the “look” in the eyes of someone who sees you as their one-and-only.
Andrea and I talked about this as we cooked dinner on Monday night, and she said it well: “Sometimes it would be nice to be loved in particular. Of course, we love and are loved in lots of different ways. But to have someone to say, ‘I love YOU more than anybody else.’ That’s a really nice feeling.” I miss that.
It’s not a constant struggle, but it does creep up on me some days, like during Downton Abbey (spoilers to come if you’re not caught up to the current episodes). Haha! I know; it’s a little pathetic. I’m guilty of being all too emotionally attached to those characters, and their “lives” sometimes bring my own into light. Like the priceless way that Matthew looks at Lady Mary as he proposes to her; or like Lady Grantham gushing to Mary about the “delightful fun” that she and Matthew will have on their impending wedding night. I want that look! I want that “delightful fun!” Especially on Valentine’s Day, I can’t help but feel the sting of those unfulfilled desires.
The tough part is this: Just because I choose to become a Sister doesn’t mean that the natural, human desires of my heart and my body will just turn off. I’ll be just as prone to falling in love as I always have been. Kathleen Norris, a spiritual poet and writer, reminds us in her book The Cloister Walk that this is normal and healthy. She says that one prioress (head nun in an abbey) shared in an address to her community, “The worst sin against celibacy…is to pretend to have no affections at all…Most of us should have fallen in love twenty times or so by now.”
It’s true, and it’s confusing. If I’m out in the world, loving and serving as I’m called to do, I’m bound to rub shoulders with some pretty amazing guys like the one I fell in love with two years ago. I’m sure I haven’t been swept off my feet for the last time.
I think most religious and priests would say that it is a lifelong journey to figure out how to live their commitment with integrity. At the same time, I think that most would say, too, that being celibate frees them to love and serve in the way that God calls them to. And that it actually brings them a unique and joyful experience of loving. With every struggle, there comes a gift.
|Eddie and I at his going-away luncheon|
Fr. Eddie is a Jesuit priest who just finished his term as pastor at Iglesia Sagrado Corazón, where I work. He is the kind of priest that a parish falls in love with – gentle, laid back, accessible, goofy at times, sensitive, and so very loving. Eddie has been an exceptional mentor and role model for me as I prepare to become a religious. He has shared his journey as a priest openly, including that he fell in love and learned to channel his affections into a wonderful friendship.
Eddie treasures his role as a priest and the way that it opens him up to love a lot of people. I remember once when we were chatting, he said something that really touched me. “Being celibate has really been one of the greatest gifts of my life. The people in the parish here, man, they give me so much love! Just when I think about being lonely, I get a hug, or a phone call, or a kind word. My life is just filled to the brim with love!”
It’s true, of course. I have experienced exactly what Eddie’s telling me even in my short time of formation. God’s love breaks into our lives in so many ways. I suppose one of the gifts of being celibate is being especially sensitive to those many ways. The absence of that one very tangible romantic love creates a sacred space in which I give and receive all kinds of love.
|Our community at Christmastime|
There is the deep, family-like bond shared among Sisters, who have all committed themselves to living without that one human source of “particular love.” They love each other. They strengthen each other as they walk side by side, striving to serve whole-heartedly and be faithful to their vows. This is the love that I come to know in community. It’s the bond I feel each morning with my housemates, starting the day united in silent prayer. It’s the warmth I feel sitting around in the living room, laughing and sharing about our days. It’s the understanding I’m met with when I share moments of joy and struggle in religious life with the other young women in formation.
There is the love shared with those I minister to. Just when I’m feeling lonely or lacking in love, little 4 year-old Mili greets me at the clinic door with an excited shout and the sweetest hug you can ever imagine. Or one of the clinic moms wraps me in an embrace the way only Mexican women know how. Just when I wonder if it’s all worth it, someone at Sacred Heart looks at me through teary eyes and says, “Muchas gracias por todo.”
There are the many wonderful friends and family members, near and far, who enrich my life with their care and support.
And, of course, there is God, who is the source of all love and the driving force of my life. As Sr. Sandra Schneiders says in Finding the Treasure, “all religious life is centered around the single-minded God-quest, the…concentration of the whole of one’s life on the ‘one thing necessary,’ which is union with God.” This quest is a gift. As I lay in bed some nights, feeling the aching of loneliness that comes with the territory of religious life, I reach out for God with all that I am. The hole inside, then, allows me to experience dependence on God in quite a profound way. It's like that gritty but powerful turning of our hearts to God in Lent. The emptiness stretches me and draws me ever deeper into God’s mystery.
I suppose I’m writing all of those flowery words in part to convince myself. I know darn well that this wonderful “mystery” won’t get me a nice candlelit dinner and a long kiss good night. But I do know, with all of my being, that it has ignited my life with God-given purpose that is truly my unique call. And although it might not be in the way I expected it, my life is anything but void of love.
This is the Good News for all of us – single, married, gay, straight, Mexican, Caucasian, 26 years old or 97: our Creator is filling our lives with a great love that is always bigger than we can fathom. There is no life without sacrifice, of course. Feelings of pain, loneliness and emptiness are experienced in all walks of life. But God’s sustaining love abides, really.
Even this Scroogey, celibate girl can get excited about that. It will be a happy "Celibate" Valentine’s Day. I’ll try to spend the day lifting up prayers of gratitude for all the channels by which God fills my life to the brim. For me, it won’t be a man with a bouquet of roses. But it will come through many other people and moments. Hopefully, years from now, an older, wiser and expertly celibate (haha) Sister Tracy will reread this reflection by her 26 year old self and smile knowingly. Until then, I’ll fumble on, inspired by the many religious and priests I know who are living their vow of celibacy courageously and with great love.